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Helping children cope with disaster

Hurricane Matthew’s flooding rains have wreaked havoc on communities across eastern North Carolina. In Lumberton, 1,500 people were stranded by the flooded Lumber River. In Fayetteville, more than 700 people have been rescued from rising water. Across the region—in Goldsboro, Princeville, Kinston, Greenville, and so many more towns and neighborhoods—families have been left homeless, businesses have been destroyed, schools have been closed, and water is not safe to drink.

These experiences are traumatic for everyone, but particularly for children whose sense of safety is threatened. From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN): “Children may see their usually confident parents and caregivers become anxious and fearful. They may lose their homes and cherished pets, memorabilia, and toys. They may see collapsed or damaged buildings—including their schools or familiar community landmarks. They may experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or dead bodies.”

And it doesn’t necessarily end once the water recedes.

Catastrophic events, like the flooding in eastern North Carolina, often throw families and communities into chaos for weeks or months. Families may need to move multiple times between shelters, relatives, and other temporary housing arrangements. The destruction and disruption of local businesses can result in serious financial challenges for families, which can undermine their ability to meet the basic needs of their children. This is particularly problematic in areas like eastern North Carolina that were economically distressed prior to the storm.

When children experience trauma, they suffer from increased anxiety, fear, problems concentrating, and difficulties in school. Older children are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. Studies done after Hurricane Floyd document the long-lasting impact of storm-related trauma and show increased rates of children with PTSD symptoms months after the floods.

These challenges are greater for children who are already struggling with emotional or behavioral issues. Running out of medications, disruptions in routines, and living in shelters disrupt a child’s sense of stability and predictability and are likely to exacerbate existing conditions.

After a disaster like Hurricane Matthew, we should expect that children will show signs of trauma—it’s natural and normal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help healing. The good news is that most children do recover with the support of their families, friends, neighbors, and critically important public infrastructure like our schools and health systems.

Schools offer children an environment of safety and routine with teachers and other caring adults, which helps to restore a sense of stability to children following the chaos of the storm. For children living in shelters or with relatives, school might be the only part of their day that feels normal, and normal routines, rules, and boundaries are critical for helping children recover. For school personnel who are interested in learning more about helping children cope with trauma, NCTSN has a school-focused resource page.

Our public health and mental health systems offer trauma-informed care for children and their families for the weeks and months after the storm. Some providers offer Psychological First Aid in the acute aftermath as part of Red Cross efforts to assist with the stabilization of families in need. If children are still showing symptoms of trauma several weeks after the flooding, the North Carolina legislature funds the NC Child Treatment Program, which offers comprehensive assessments and connection to evidence-based treatments that can address the ongoing concerns.

We’re all inspired by the selflessness of neighbors helping neighbors and the heroism of first responders risking their lives to save others. And we should be. We should also commit to helping children work through the trauma they’ve experienced, so that Hurricane Matthew’s flood waters don’t hold them back in the months and years to come.

The National Traumatic Child Stress Network–Hurricanes
The National Traumatic Child Stress Network—School Personnel Resources
NC Child Treatment Program

Michelle Hughes

Michelle Hughes is the executive director of NC Child and has worked in the field of children’s advocacy for almost 20 years in North Carolina.